Norwegian sailors, refugee women honoured
20 June 2002 - World Refugee Day 2002
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers marked World Refugee Day on Thursday by awarding the annual Nansen Refugee Award to the owners, captain and crew of a Norwegian vessel that rescued hundreds of shipwrecked asylum seekers last year in the Indian Ocean. Elsewhere, UNHCR offices in 114 countries held a variety of activities, including sports and arts competitions, concerts, photo exhibits, and folk song and dance presentations to mark the event dedicated to millions of refugee women.
In many countries, however, there was no break from the vital humanitarian work of helping refugees, including in Afghanistan, where thousands of refugees are going home daily, and in northern Kenya, where fleeing Somalis received help at a remote border post.
In Oslo, Lubbers presented the annual Nansen Refugee Award to the owners, captain and crew of the Norwegian container vessel MV Tampa, which rescued 438 asylum seekers, including women and children, in the Indian Ocean last August. He said he hoped the award would "encourage all individuals who in their private capacity have contributed to improving the well-being of asylum seekers and refugees." Receiving this year's award were Capt. Arne F. Rinnan, his crew and the owners of the Tampa, Wilh. Wilhelmsen ASA.
Lubbers noted that Wilh. Wilhelmsen ASA has a long record of rescues at sea. Since 1977, the company's vessels have saved more than 1,300 people in various situations. Capt. Rinnan was in charge of the MV Tampa when it rescued the 438 boat people in the Indian Ocean on 26 August 2001. Despite the risk of substantial delays and large financial losses to the company, and despite the fact that the ship was unequipped to accommodate hundreds of passengers, the ship altered its course to rescue the asylum seekers.
"All the risks involved did not prevent them from going out of their way to help these desperate asylum seekers reach safety," Lubbers said at the Oslo ceremony.
The winners announced during the ceremonies that the $100,000 prize that goes with the award will be donated to an education project for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
The Nansen Refugee Award was established in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees during the League of Nations period.
Last year, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution designating every 20th of June as World Refugee Day as a gesture of solidarity with Africa, which has shown great generosity to refugees and which has been marking this day as Africa Refugee Day.
Elsewhere Thursday, UNHCR staff from Afghanistan to Zambia marked World Refugee Day with a host of activities. In Washington, D.C., UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie was to participate in an event at Union Station with other celebrities and dignitaries, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. On the internet, eBay is auctioning memorabilia offered and signed by celebrities, including Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Naomi Campbell and Michael Schumacher. Proceeds from the sale of these items will go to refugees.
But the daily routine of caring for people of concern to UNHCR continued around the world. UNHCR's assisted return programme for Afghan refugees went on as usual. Preliminary figures for Thursday showed around 8,600 Afghans had arrived as of late afternoon. More than 1,020,000 Afghans have returned to Afghanistan since the programme was launched on 1 March - making it one of UNHCR's largest and fastest repatriation operations.
In Kenya, UNHCR was finally able Thursday to transport a first group of 243 Somali refugees from some 5,000 who have been stranded for weeks in the country's north-eastern border town of Mandera to the Dadaab refugee camp.
There were also places where there was nothing to celebrate Thursday - like Liberia, engulfed in recent weeks in renewed fighting. "With access to refugees cut off and displaced and refugees inside the country living in fear and dire conditions and limited resources, a celebration was definitely not deemed appropriate," the UNHCR office in Monrovia reported early Thursday.
Lack of resources is a major problem for many of UNHCR's programmes.
A 35-year-old Afghan woman who calls herself Sofia summed up UNHCR's dilemma in Afghanistan and elsewhere: "For many years we were forced to live outside. Afghanistan needs us now, but we're coming back to a country just out of war with so few things available. Our house is totally destroyed and we have no job to go back to. It will be very hard work for us but in the end it will be worth it."
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Giorgio Armani, said he wanted to recognise the "courage, perseverance and determination" of refugee women and children.
"For those of us who are fortunate enough to live our lives without fear of persecution, war or famine, today is a day when we can pause and acknowledge the bravery and strength of those mothers and wives who have to raise their families under intolerable circumstances," Mr. Armani said in a statement. "Through World Refugee Day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is therefore giving each of us the possibility to make a difference."